By Gerard Russell
"America," said Alexis de Tocqueville, "is a country of freedom where, in order not to wound anyone, the foreigner must not speak freely." By these standards Akbar Ahmed, a professor at American University and formerly an administrator on Pakistan's north-west frontier, has published a particularly audacious book.
His book Journey into America: The Challenge of Islam, which comes out on June 15, speaks freely about the Muslim perspective on American society. It knowingly comes in the aftermath of acts of terrorism carried out by American Muslims. Its focus is rightly much broader, but this sharpens its relevance.
In the spirit of de Tocqueville, whom he frequently quotes, Ahmed led a mixed team of Muslims and Christians, Americans and foreigners, to examine American Muslim society with the eye of an anthropologist and an expert on Islam. Over the course of a year the author and his team traveled to more than 75 U.S. cities across the country, visiting more than 100 mosques, residences, and educational institutions. The book offers plenty of colorful observations based on 2,000 interviews -- both those one might expect (Noam Chomsky, U.S. Muslim leaders) and those one might not (the Ku Klux Klan and a Las Vegas stripper). In 520 pages, Ahmed gives a series of insightful vignettes on interfaith relations, politics, conversion, and race. And then the book makes a disturbing prediction: that violence involving U.S. Muslims will continue to increase.
Ahmed blames for this both the American intelligence and security community ("the cheerleaders of the hate and fear-mongering directed against Muslims") and Muslim leaders in the United States. These, he says, "need to face the crisis in their community rather than recoil in the customary defensive manner." In any event he feels many are out of touch, and have failed to build relationships with other faith communities -- specifically, the Mormon and Jewish communities (if you're wondering why Muslims should build relations with these two other faith-groups in particular, then the book explains this at some length).
There are plenty of better American Muslim voices, he suggests, which are as yet unheard by the mainstream media. Those voices can be heard through this book. They include leading African-American Muslims, given that some estimates suggest that African-Americans, though they are a lesser proportion of U.S. Muslims generally, make up one third of regular mosque attendance in the United States.
I could have used a book like this, written about Britain, when I was in charge of the U.K. government's outreach to Muslims from 2001 to 2003. British Muslims are a diverse enough grouping, but in the United States they are even more so -- including rich and poor, Republicans and Democrats, of over eighty different ethnicities and lacking any single religious hierarchy that is universally respected. Some are not religious at all; some resent being defined by their religion.
The whole idea of governments engaging with people on the basis of their religion is an uncomfortable one. Done crudely, it reinforces (ironically enough) the very rhetoric it is designed to counter. Islamic militants want religious identity to trump all others; when Britain (or the U.S.) attempts to reach its citizens through religious leaders rather than democratically elected representatives, it risks promoting this same agenda.
There are two quite different reasons, though, why Dr. Ahmed's book is welcome. Parts of this book are particularly good in portraying Islamic religious leaders who have a genuine following, and can credibly promote non-violence and tolerance. This is something the U.S. government and media should register.
The other reason is that, among stories that are disheartening, it has some that give hope. A warm welcome is given in rural Alabama to a woman on the team, who is wearing a full-length Islamic robe. Radical Muslim preachers proclaim their love for America. Ahmed movingly describes his own interfaith discussion with the father of Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter murdered by Islamist militants in 2002 in Pakistan. Studies of Muslims in America are not just important because of violence or terrorism -- which have entrapped only a tiny number of practicing Muslims -- but because they represent some of the United States' newest, most diverse, and least understood communities. Dr. Ahmed does us all a favor by illustrating them with this marvelously diverse set of interviews.
Gerard Russell was in charge of the British government's outreach to the Muslim world in 2001-2003. He is now an Afghanistan/Pakistan Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School's Carr Center for Human Rights.